Last year we observed Talk Like a Pirate Day with a glimpse at my five favorite pirate performers. Today we give a shout out to one of my favorite books as a child, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 Treasure Island. This was the edition I had, put out by Western Publishing in 1971, and I read and re-read it many a time.
One of the more famous versions has gorgeous illustrations by N.C. Wyeth:
30 years after my own childhood, I delighted in reading it aloud to my sons. As an actor, one of the great challenges is creating different personalities for the various pirates: Long John Silver, Ben Bones, Black Dog, etc. Treasure Island is one of the great adventure stories of all time. One can’t help but notice that it follows Joseph Campbell’s “Call to Adventure” formula pretty much to a tee. It’s quite the same as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Jason and the Argonauts. A kid is pretty much minding his own business one day when WHAM, out of the blue, danger and adventure come to him, and he can’t avoid it. That’s one of the lessons of this plot, I think. You cannot hide from danger. Often as not, it will find you wherever you are. Move away from the seacoast, and it will be highway robbers rather than pirates. Another beguiling feature is the ambiguous, duplicitous nature of Long John. A villain, yes, and yet he is kind to Jim. What does one do with that? I still don’t know what to do with that! And the frustrating naivete of the authority figures in the story — feels very true to life.
So naturally this irresistible story has been made into films; indeed, it is one of the most-adapted works of fiction ever. So, herewith a thumbnail look at some of the many versions. There are dozens more than these. I left out numerous less distinguished TV series and productions. These seem to be the more noteworthy ones:
1912: Ben F. Wilson played Long John in the Edison Production, directed by J. Searle Dawley. Average running time for films in those days was about 10 minutes.
1913: Vitagraph’s first director William V. Ranous self-produced and starred in this one.
1918: Now lost, this was one of a series of a Fox’s Sunset Kiddies productions, in which the entire cast was made up of children and teenagers.
1934: This may be the be best all around classic version of them all, full of Hollywood magic. Wallace Beery’s Long John Silver would shortly be eclipsed by Robert Newton’s, but if it hadn’t, his would forever reign. Jackie Cooper is also perhaps the screen’s best Jim, and with Lionel Barrymore, Chic Sale, and Nigel Bruce also in the cast, it’s a multi course feast of performances.
1950: The Disney version not only brought us the story in gorgeous Technicolor but also brought us the greatest pirate actor of all time, Robert Newton, as Long John Silver. Newton also reprised the role in the 1954 film Long John Silver. The ill-fated Bobby Driscoll played young Jim Hawkins.
1968: A British tv series. Peter Vaughan (Game of Thrones) as Long John.
1972: Another classic version, with Orson Welles in one of his last great roles as Long John Silver, along with Lionel Stander, and Walter Slezak. This version was written by Wolf Mankowitz, who wrote the book that inspired my play about Adah Isaacs Mencken.
1978: Japanese anime version
1982: This British made-for-tv musical includes Frank Gorshin in the cast
1985: a modernized version by Raoul Ruiz with Vic Tayback, Martin Landau, and Anna Karina
1990: A TV version for TNT. Christian Bale ranks with Jackie Cooper as being the most notable (and capable) kid ever to play Jim. The stellar cast also features Charlton Heston, Oliver Reed, and Christopher Lee, all of whom had been in the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers.
1995: Ken Russell’s Treasure Island, a surreal musical with Hetty Baynes playing Long John Silver as Marilyn Monroe!
1996: The Muppet version, aided and abetted by Tim Curry as Long John
1997: An animated all-animal version with Dawn French doing the voice of Jim and Richard E. Grant as Long John
1999: This version had Jack Palance as Long John Silver.
2002: Disney’s animated Treasure Planet transplanted the story to outer space, an effect not unlike Forbidden Planet (which had transplanted The Tempest to same) and is also a little reminiscent of the studio’s The Black Hole (1979). Voice over cast included the great Patrick McGoohan in his last role, as well as Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce, Martin Short, Roscoe Lee Brown and Laurie Metcalf.
2006: Pirates of Treasure Island featured Tom Nagel, with Lance Henriksen as Long John
2012: This fairly recent version featured Eddie Izzard as Long John Silver, with Donald Sutherland, and Elijah Wood also in the cast.
Clearly Long John is the part to play, and that alone, if nothing else, will generate more and more versions of this classic story as time goes on. As indeed IMDB tells us, more are in production. Sail, Ho! Skull and Crossbones off the port bow!